Wiedersehen

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2016
Original album - (none)
Producer - Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - bonus track with single "Twenty-something"

This slow, stately, and deeply forlorn ballad, dominated by acoustic piano, was composed by the Boys in February 2015 during their highly productive writing sessions for the album that eventually became Super. Neil has described it as "a very beautiful song," noting that it's "about the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig fleeing his country before the Nazis' arrival…. He's saying auf wiedersehen to his life in Austria." (Neil's professed inspiration was a book he had recently read about Zweig.) He also added that it should "find its place somewhere, probably as a b-side." Sure enough, he and Chris decided to release it as one of the bonus tracks for the single "Twenty-something."

"Wiedersehen" has some unusual elements both musically and lyrically. Quite atypically for PSB, the music shifts time signature back and forth between common time (4:4) in the verses and compound duple time (6:8) in the chorus. It's also one of a small handful of PSB songs—"Miracles" being another—that employs a harmonic device, particularly common during the Baroque era, known as a Tierce de Piccardie, or "Picardy third," in which a piece composed in a minor key (as "Wiedersehen" is, not surprisingly given the subject matter) unexpectedly ends with the corresponding major chord. The resulting emotional effect on the listener can vary widely depending on the circumstances, often lending an air of joy and triumph but sometimes coming across as mildly unsettling. In the particular circumstances of "Wiedersehen," the latter is probably more likely.

As for the lyrics, one's initial impression is that it's sung directly from Zweig's perspective, as if Zweig himself were the narrator as he offers doleful goodbyes to the "mountains," "trees," and "ski slopes" of his beautiful homeland. But it soon becomes apparent that, no, Neil has adopted a third-person omniscient narrator who, while occasionally addressing Zweig as "you" (as in the line "Your old friend Freud has helped you," among others), is nevertheless entirely privy to his innermost thoughts. In this way Neil astutely manages, so to speak, to have his lyrical cake and eat it, too—blending the present-time immediacy of Zweig's situation as he says farewell to Austria while simultaneously being fully atuned to things of which Zweig himself probably wouldn't be fully conscious under such circumstances.

Even amidst a string of literal, seemingly mundane observations—"The train is on the platform…. Your suitcases are sitting on the luggage rack"—Neil interjects the painful metaphor "The knife is in your back," expressing the profound sense of loss, threat, and betrayal the fleeing author must be feeling. Could this even be a hint at Zweig's eventual suicide as he later comes to despair at the miserable state of the world during the depths of the Second World War? That is, perhaps Zweig isn't merely saying goodbye to Austria, but it's also his first step toward bidding farewell to the world altogether.

Interestingly, the title is indeed simply "Wiedersehen" (meaning "see again") as opposed to the much more familiar idiomatic German expression auf wiedersehen (literally "on seeing again" but idiomatically "goodbye"). Neil does indeed sing it both ways in the chorus, both with and without the "auf." German-speakers do in fact commonly say simply "Wiedersehen" rather than the full expression in much the same way that English-speakers very often say "bye" as opposed to "goodbye." As one of my German site visitors has pointed out, said by itself, "Wiedersehen" is used as an informal expression of parting with no strong emotional connotations, whereas the full expression "Auf wiedersehen" is more formal and carries far more emotional weight, specifically expressing the hope of a future meeting.

The chorus, incidentally, is entirely in German, with the added words "Wie wir gehen" (literally "As we go"). In the context of the song, this might also be interpreted "As we say goodbye," "How do we go?" or "How do we say goodbye?" Several of my German site visitors told me that to their "native speaker ears" the phrase didn't seem to make much sense. But Neil checked with both Goetz Botzenhardt (who mixed the track) and Sven Helbig (the composer who orchestrated Battleship Potemkin, The Most Incredible Thing, and A Man from the Future for the Boys), themselves Germans, who confirmed that it was just fine—in Helbig's words, "like poetic German"—for Neil's intended meaning, "As we go."

Incidentally, Rufus Wainwright sings backup in that chorus, but unfortunately he's barely audible in the mix.

A number of people—including the Pet Shop Boys themselves via their official website—have commented on the seemingly prescient irony of "Wiedersehen" being released on the very day that the British electorate voted to leave the European Union. Goodbye, indeed.

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